As U.S. Negotiates with Iran Israel grapples with a strategic dilemma


Udi Evental | Spotlight: Israel & The Middle East | April, 2021

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Photos: Avi Ohayon - GPO


The negotiations between Iran and the great powers in Vienna is unveiling a worrying trend: the United States increasingly seems to be taking action out of a sense of urgency and a weak position in the conflict with Iran over its expanding nuclear program and aggressive policy across the region. This dynamic is placing Israel in a strategic crossroad, where one route leads to a confrontational policy vis à vis the Biden Administration, and the other deepens the bilateral collaboration with it in an attempt to reach understandings that will ensure Israel's strategic interests and national security.


The U.S. is blinking first in the conflict with Iran


Prior to the Vienna talks, the Biden Administration has already signaled its willingness to overlook the principle that had guided it to date, whereby Iran would have to fully comply with the JCPOA once again in order for the U.S. to lift its sanctions. In view of Tehran's uncompromising stance, headed by its leader Khamenei, who insists upon a reverse order whereby sanctions are to be lifted as a prerequisite to Iranian compliance, the U.S. administration has formulated a proposal for simultaneous and incremental return to the JCPOA. It suggested that Tehran will begin by halting the installment of advanced centrifuges and enrichment of uranium to 20% purity, in exchange for which some of the American sanctions will be lifted to enable it to access one billion Dollars' worth of frozen funds.


The Iranian regime rejected the offer before it was even submitted, as it reiterated its objection to such a step in Vienna, and threatened to keep expanding its nuclear deal violations if its demands will go unanswered. Moreover, Tehran refuses to conduct any direct negotiations with the Biden Administration, which insists on negotiate with it and conveying messages to it via mediators. The administration's repeated statements whereby "the ball is in Iran's court" don’t hold water, for the ball seems to be bouncing right back to the American court time and again.


The administration is also displaying a hesitant approach across the region vis à vis Iran and its proxies' aggressive one. Ever since Biden has entered office, Iran is taking its offensive policy "up a notch" to reflect growing boldness and confidence. The change is expressed in a series of attacks by its proxies as well as the IRGC against a range of targets and theaters: strategic facilities in Saudi Arabia; U.S. bases in Iraq; Israeli sea vessels in the Gulf; cyber targets, etc.


The Biden Administration has identified the shift in Iranian policy, responding to rockets launched at a U.S. base in the Kurdish area of Iraq with a strike against pro-Iranian militia groups on the Syrian-Iraqi border. While the administration has indeed proven that use of force remains an alternative in its toolbox, the action it has taken emerges as a one-time event after it has refrained from responding to a sequence of other attacks against American interests in the region, probably because it was concerned that military retaliation would undermine its diplomatic efforts with Iran.


In view of the administration's eagerness to "put Iran back in the box" so as to make time for more pressing foreign affair issues, primarily the struggle, which it views as historic, over the lead in the race with China, Israel must prepare for the possibility that the administration will keep "softening" its demands of Iran. The Biden administration also seems to have lost the ability to rigorously enforce existing sanctions in order to pressure Iran – a step that could be perceived as a return to Trump's policies, which the Administration has publicly shrugged off, declaring them inefficient.


Whether there will be a breakthrough in negotiations before the presidential elections in Iran in June, or the negotiations will continue beyond them, the emerging trend casts doubt on the Biden Administration's ability to put its declarations – whereby the return to the JCPOA will lead to a "stronger, longer" agreement with Iran – to practice.


Israel is at a strategic crossroad


These trends, as well as the emerging shared interest of President Biden and Iranian leader Khamenei, each for his own reasons, to return to the JCPOA are cornering Israel into a strategic dilemma where it must choose between two alternatives:


  • Option A – To confront the U.S. administration and try to convince it not to return to the JCPOA and lift sanctions. Israel is extremely worried that the flaws of the JCPOA will pave the way for Tehran to become a nuclear threshold state with complete international legitimization, and will allow it to engage in R&D leading to minimal breakout time for fissile material for a bomb, without authorizing the International Atomic Energy Agency to oversee its nuclear weapon program.

  • Option B – To strive for quiet bilateral understandings with the U.S. administration based on the latter's declared and clear commitment to Israel's national security, the shared view that Iran should not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons under any circumstances, and the robust military, intelligence and operational cooperation between the two countries.


Israel has yet to properly engage in a process of inter-organizational consultation by which to formulate its policy on the matter, which is of top strategic importance. Nevertheless, it is already emerging as having opted for the confrontational approach, particularly if it is indeed behind the actions attributed to it against Iran while the world powers are negotiating with it in Vienna. Be that as it may, Prime Minister Netanyahu has declared that an agreement with Iran will not bind Israel, and the Chief of the General staff signaled that he is preparing military options for thwarting the Iranian nuclear project.


Should Israel decide to confront the Biden Administration, it could be at risk of repeating the mistake it made with President Obama, the conflict with whom did not prevent the signing of the nuclear deal with Tehran back in 2015. In light of the international consensus clearly reflected by the Vienna talks in favor of returning to the JCPOA, an oppositional policy and military signals may cause Israel to be isolated, turning the Iranian nuclear threat into an "Israeli problem" instead of a global challenge.


Moreover, a conflict with the U.S. administration on the Iranian issue is expected to project negatively on U.S.-Israel relations as a whole, as well as impede the American support and backing for Israel when addressing broader challenges, such as the investigation at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, the negative developments in the Palestinian arena, maintaining Israel's qualitative military edge (QME), the IDF's long-term buildup plan vis à vis evolving military threats, and the expansion of the normalization process.


On the other hand, a policy striving for bilateral understandings with the U.S. could weaken the pressure on the administration to pressure Iran, and may even entail certain limitations on Israel's freedom of action against the Iranian nuclear project. At the same time it is unlikely that the U.S. administration would fundamentally alter its policy and conduct with regard to the Iranian issue as a result of Israeli pressure; moreover, a military Israeli option seems futile at present because anyway the return to the JCPOA would keep the Iranian nuclear program at a reasonable distance away from breaking out to nuclear weapons in the coming years.


At this current state of affairs, it seems that pursuing a deep and quiet dialogue toward the consolidation of bilateral understandings with the Biden Administration would better serve Israel's interests. However, it is unclear whether, under such unprecedented circumstances of political crisis and paralysis, Israel is able to set the wheels of the consultation process required in motion to inform a quid pro quo dialogue with the United States.


A mutually beneficial dialogue with the U.S. Administration should focus, inter alia, on the following content and objectives: ways of reaching a longer, stronger agreement with Iran, and the steps that will be taken in the absence of such an agreement; monitoring the Iranian nuclear program to ensure that Iran does not break out or "sneak" to a nuclear weapon; identifying these actions early on and guaranteeing the thwarting thereof within a relevant timeframe; maintaining a credible military threat against the regime in Tehran; differentiating between the nuclear issue and the need to stop the spread and entrenchment of Iran and its proxies across the Middle East; aspects of force buildup, and so on.



"Spotlight: Israel & The Middle East" is a weekly brief on topical strategic issues facing Israel and the Middle East. The brief shares the insights of the research team of IDC Herzliya's Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) and is authored by Col. (res.) Udi Evental, a senior researcher at IPS. 

 

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